Traveling to a foreign country always comes with a sense of adventure and excitement to experience the unknown. With it, there are certain types of minor travel disasters that you figure go with the territory, such as the occasional bag gone missing, reservation mix-up, or bad stomach from eating unfamiliar foods.
For most of these situations, it’s simple enough to improvise a solution—or at worst, try not to let the consequences affect the rest of your vacation. But for many travelers, the most significant type of incident is the one for which we’re the least prepared: what happens during and immediately after a natural disaster.
It’s easy to assume that, in the case of a natural disaster, your home country will immediately provide relief or the means to evacuate. But, in serious emergencies, communication and transportation infrastructure is often down for days, and it can take up to 72 hours before help arrives.
So, how to prepare for the unimaginable when planning your next trip? We’ve compiled a basic disaster plan for international travel, incorporating suggestions from the “Family Disaster Plan” developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross.
Preparing Before You Travel
1. Make sure that you’re easily identified.
Fill out an American Red Cross Emergency Contact Card, and be sure to include a list of your current medications and allergies. An alternative emergency form provided by FEMA has room for additional information, including traveling companions.
2. Register with STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program)
The State Department’s website will keep you up to date on relevant travel warnings and advisories with email alerts. Additionally, registering will allow them to be better able to help you if a natural disaster occurs.
3. Pick someone from home to be a point of contact.
If you become separated from your traveling companions during a disaster, interruptions in local cell phone service can make reconnecting difficult. It’s often easier to make long-distance calls—especially on landlines.
For the most efficient safety plan, you and your traveling companions should agree on a single point of contact before your trip. Maybe it’s a mutual friend back home or someone’s parent—just make sure this person is easily reached and reliable. If seperated, your point person can help transmit information to assist you in reconnecting.
4. Make paper copies of all your documents.
Including your travel insurance details, full itinerary, and key phone numbers, as well as a copy of your passport. Give copies to a trusted friend at home in case your papers are lost or damaged and store digital copies of everything online.
What To Do In Case of a Tsunami or Flood While Traveling
- When heading to a location, make note of any potential escape routes that can get you at least 100 ft. above sea level or two miles inland.
- For extra preparedness, check out your route ahead of time in case you have to navigate it at night.
- If a tsunami is triggered, get away immediately. If you have an emergency radio on hand, take it with you to monitor the situation until it’s safe to return.
- Finally, wait until the all-clear, because one tsunami wave can hide another, larger one.
Because it’s unlikely that you’ll be familiar with a travel destination’s roadways and topography beforehand, ask the staff at your hotel or accommodations if a tsunami evacuation procedure already exists. You can also check Google Earth to trace an escape route yourself—then be sure to print a copy for reference in an emergency.
Before traveling, you can also purchase short-term plans from the Tsunami Alarm System, a commercial warning system that sends text messages in the event of a tsunami for extra security. This can be especially useful if you’re staying at a hotel or resort that’s located right on the beach.
In Case of Flash Flooding
Flash floods are another type of water-related disaster; you can’t predict them but if it rains excessively, you should at least be attentive—particularly if you’ll be engaging in any water sports.
If you happen to be visiting an area with aquatic life, be extra careful—you might come face-to-face with an alligator or water snakes. Another danger is downed power lines; electricity coupled with water is never something to take lightly.
What To Do In Case of a Tornado While Traveling
A tornado is basically a violent wind funnel, and while many seem to occur in North America, they’re not limited to the area. Like most natural disasters, the best protection in the event of a tornado is to anticipate, prepare and plan so that you’re not taken by surprise.
What to do if you’re traveling to a tornado-prone area?
- Ask your hotel about “safe rooms” where guests are relocated in case of a weather emergency, as well as what emergency supplies, lighting and medical equipment are on hand.
- Check that your accommodations have taken measures to prevent items, like framed pictures and televisions, from falling in case of an earthquake. If not, remove easily-dislodged items from the wall and place them on the floor.
- Don’t forget that open lines of communication have a limited capacity. Unless it’s an emergency, stay off the telephone to keep the lines open for disaster response.
Often, it’s safest to remain inside. However, as a guest, it’s up to you to know where the emergency exits are and to listen to evacuation instructions.
What To Do In Case of a Hurricane While Traveling
Hurricanes usually start over water and may head towards land. While they can be incredibly dangerous, the recent coverage of Hurricane Patricia is a great example of how advanced weather tracking technology often allows local authorities to begin preparing and evacuations long before the storm hits.
Hurricane Patricia at peak intensity and approaching the Western Mexico on October 23, 2015. Image: NASA
However, hurricanes can still be unpredictable; they can veer slightly before hitting land, affecting an entirely different area—catching whole cities by surprise.
Your first step in safety? As always, it’s knowing the risks: Hurricane season lasts from June 1 to November 30 in the Atlantic, and May 15 to November 30 in the Eastern Pacific. The majority of storms usually occur between mid-August and October, with the most severe hurricanes occurring in September in all areas.
Additional notification options include the Red Cross Hurricane App, which lets you track hurricanes and weather conditions in a specific area. The free app also comes with tropical storm warning alerts and helps you find shelters, and is available through both the iTunes App Store and Google Play.
There’s also Hurricane Hound, which lets users track storms and weather patterns on their phones and tablets. The app highlights potential hurricane areas, hurricane categories, and wind speeds on a Google Maps layout, and is available for free on Google Play.
What to do if you’re notified of an impending hurricane? Leave.
It’s your responsibility to be familiar with any evacuation routes and, more importantly, to have the wherewithal to use them. Many travelers are tempted to hang in there and “ride out the storm,” but doing so puts yourself in avoidable danger.
Once the storm has passed, pay attention to your weather radio and follow the instructions accordingly. It may not be safe for you to return to the neighborhood of your hotel if it has been leveled, or it may not be safe for you to venture out if power lines are down, or there is a bit of localized flooding.
Finally, don’t fooled by a name: A hurricane is known as a cyclone in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans and a typhoon in the NW Pacific.
What To Do In Case of an Earthquake While Traveling
If you live in an area prone to earthquakes, then you’re probably familiar with the telltale signs: The earth will shake and the ground will roll until the earthquake stops of its own accord, and there's nothing you can do about it.
While you can’t predict an earthquake, you can protect yourself with these tips. Here’s what travelers can do to stay safe, should disaster strike:
- If you're indoors, stay there. Get under—and hold onto—a desk or table, or stand against an interior wall. Stay clear of exterior walls, glass, heavy furniture, fireplaces, and appliances. The kitchen is a particularly dangerous spot. And whatever else, do not use the elevator.
- If you're outside, get into the open. Stay clear of buildings, power lines or anything else that could fall on you.
- If you're driving, move the car out of traffic and stop. Avoid parking under or on bridges or overpasses. Try to get clear of trees, light posts, signs and power lines. When you resume driving, watch out for road hazards.
- If you're in a mountainous area, beware of the potential for landslides. Likewise, if you're near the ocean, be aware that tsunamis are associated with large earthquakes. Get to high ground.
- If you’re in a crowded public place, avoid panicking and do not rush for the exit. Stay low and cover your head and neck with your hands and arms.
After an earthquake, be alert for fire or fire hazards, including the smell of gas. If you’re staying in a private residence during your vacation, locate and shut off the main gas valve. You can also shut off power at the fuse box, should there be any evidence of damage to the electrical wiring.
Be careful to avoid any items that might fall out when you open a cupboard or closet. And finally, remember that aftershocks, sometimes large enough to cause damage in their own right, generally follow large quakes.
Finally, did you know that doorways are no stronger than any other part of a structure? So don’t rely on them for protection! Earthquake Country provides additional details on what to do during an earthquake, including why experts recommend you “drop, cover, and hold on” instead of standing in a doorframe. The organization also shares helpful information, such as an Earthquake Preparedness Guide for those with disabilities, or other access or functional needs.
Bottom Line? Be Prepared For Natural Disasters
Natural disasters are the last thing you want to think about before going on vacation. But, knowing a few simple things about how to prepare for each situation can mean the difference between life and death in an emergency situation.
And whatever the potential natural disaster, the most important piece of advice is the same: Don’t assume it won’t happen to you.
Even in developed countries, help isn’t always instantaneous. It can take even longer to arrive in countries with weak emergency procedures. Natural disasters may also happen in the middle of nowhere and infrastructure like roads may be destroyed.
To maximize your chances of getting to safety, make sure you add some money to your grab bag. It isn’t fair, but having extra cash on hand in may make the difference in survival, allowing you to possibly rent some transportation to get out of an affected zone, or even purchase emergency supplies. Speaking of which, be sure to pack a few just-in-case items, such as a SteriPEN or an American Red Cross Emergency Kit.
A final word on preparing for any kind of disaster while traveling: When an emergency winds down and people's defenses have been weakened, security breakdowns sometimes happen. Shops may be looted or supplies stolen, and person-on-person petty crime may increase. Even if the all-clear has sounded, stay watchful and preferably in an area being monitored by authorities until you’re able to return to a place of safety.
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